Abbildungen der Seite


The suggestion (we are informed by the notes) came from Cowper and Oldham, and the amazement combined with flight sticks fast in prose. But the personification of Sorrow and the fine generalization of Solitude in the last verse which gives an imaginative reach to the whole passage are Gray's

The owners of what Gray “conveyed” would have found it hard to identify their property and prove

title to it after it had once suffered the Gray-change by steeping in his mind and memory.

When the example in our Latin Grammar tells us that Mors communis est omnibus, it states a truism of considerable interest, indeed, to the person in whose particular case it is to be illustrated, but neither new nor startling. No one would think of citing it, whether to produce conviction or to heighten discourse. Yet mankind are agreed in finding something more poignant in the same reflection when Horace tells us that the palace as well as the hovel shudders at the indiscriminating foot of Death. Here is something more than the dry statement of a truism. The difference between the two is that between a lower and a higher; it is, in short, the difference between prose and poetry. The oyster has begun, at least, to secrete its pearl, something identical with its shell in substance, but in sentiment and association how unlike! Malherbe takes the same image and makes it a little more picturesque, though, at the same time, I fear, a little more Parisian, too, when he says that the sentinel pacing before the gate of the Louvre cannot forbid Death an entrance to the King. And how

[ocr errors]

long had not that comparison between the rose's life and that of the maiden dying untimely been a commonplace when the same Malherbe made it irreclaimably his own by mere felicity of phrase? We do not ask where people got their hints, but what they made out of them. The commonplace is unhappily within reach of us all, and unhappily, too, they are rare who can give it novelty and even invest it with a kind of grandeur as Gray knew how to do. If his poetry be a mosaic, the design is always his own. He, if any, had certainly “the last and greatest art,” the art to please. Shall we call everything mediocre that is not great ? Shall we deny ourselves to the charm of sentiment because we prefer the electric shudder that imagination gives us ? Even were Gray's claims to being a great poet rejected, he can never be classed with the many, so great and uniform are the efficacy of his phrase and the music to which he sets it. This unique distinction, at least, may be claimed for him without dispute, that he is the one English poet who has written less and pleased more than any other. Above all it is as a teacher of the art of writing that he is to be valued. If there be any well of English undefiled, it is to be found in him and his master, Dryden. They are still standards of what may be called classical English, neither archaic nor modern, and as far removed from pedantry as from vulgarity. They were

Tous deux disciples d'une escole

Où l'on forcene doucement,'' a school in which have been enrolled the Great Masters of literature.




I was first directed to Landor's works by hearing how much store Emerson set by them. I grew acquainted with them fifty years ago in one of those arched alcoves in the old college library in Harvard Hall, which so pleasantly secluded without wholly isolating the student. That footsteps should pass across the mouth of his Aladdin's Cave, or even enter it in search of treasure, so far from disturbing only deepened his sense of possession. These faint rumors of the world he had left served but as a pleasant reminder that he was the privileged denizen of another, beyond “the flaming bounds of place and time.” There, with my book lying at ease and in the expansion of intimacy on the broad window-shelf, shifting my cell from north to south with the season, I made friendships, that have lasted me for life, with Dodsley's “Old Plays, with Cotton's “Montaigne,” with Hakluyt’s “Voyages,” among others that were not in


father's library. It was the merest browsing, no doubt, as Johnson called it, but how delightful it was! All

1 Written to introduce Landor's letters to the readers of The Century Magazine, in which they were first published.

the more, I fear, because it added the stolen sweetness of truancy to that of study, for I should have been buckling to my allotted task of the day. I do not regret that diversion of time to other than legitimate expenses, yet shall I not gravely warn my grandsons to beware of doing the like?

I was far from understanding all I heard in this society of my elders into which I had smuggled myself, and perhaps it was as well for me; but those who formed it condescended to me at odd moments with the tolerant complacency of greatness, and I did not go empty away. Landor was in many ways beyond me, but I loved the company he brought, making persons for me of what before had been futile names, and letting me hear the discourse of men about whom Plutarch had so often told me such delightful stories. He charmed me, sometimes perhaps he imposed on me, with the stately eloquence that moved to measure always, often to music, and never enfeebled itself by undue emphasis, or raised its tone above the level of good breeding. In those ebullient years of my adolescence it was a wholesome sedative. His sententiousness, too, had its charm, equally persuasive in the carefully draped folds of the chlamys or the succinct tunic of epigram. If Plato had written in English, I thought, it is thus that he would have written. Here was a man who knew what literature was, who had assimilated what was best in it, and himself produced or reproduced it.

Three years later, while I was trying to persuade

myself that I was reading law, a friend 1 who knew better gave me the first series of the “Imaginary Conversations,” in three volumes, to which I presently added the second series, and by degrees all Landor's other books as I could pick them up, or as they were successively published. Thus I grew intimate with him, and, as my own judgment gradually affirmed itself, was driven to some abatement of my hitherto unqualified admiration. I began to be not quite sure whether the balance of his sentences, each so admirable by itself, did not grow wearisome in continuous reading, — whether it did not hamper his freedom of movement, as when a man poises a pole upon his chin. Surely he has not the swinging stride of Dryden, which could slacken to a lounge at will, nor the impassioned rush of Burke. Here was something of that cadenced stalk which is the attribute of theatrical kings. And sometimes did not his thunders also remind us of the property-room? Though the

1 Let me please myself by laying a sprig of rosemary (“ that 's for remembrance”) on his grave. This friend was John Francis Heath, of Virginia, who took his degree in 1840. He was the handsomest man I have ever seen, and in every manly exercise the most accomplished. His body was as exquisitely moulded as his face was beautiful. I seem to see him now taking that famous standing-jump of his, the brown curls blowing backward, or laying his hand on his horse's neck and vaulting into the saddle. After leaving college he went to Germany and dreamed away nine years at Heidelberg. We used to call him Hamlet, he could have done so much and did so absolutely nothing. He died in the Confederate service, in 1862. He was a good swordsman (we used to fence in those days), and the rumor of his German duels and of his intimacy with Prussian princes reached us when some fellowstudent came home.

« ZurückWeiter »